Sermons

We're Still Here

The Rev. Amy Spagna

Pentecost 26C – November 13, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25

 

Well… we survived.

I have to admit, at times in this awful political season it’s felt like we were collectively shoved back into elementary school. Instead of the “normal” campaign process which involves respectful listening and debate, the name of the game this year was finger-pointing and name-calling. It only served to throw fuel on the fires of fear and anger, to the point where they short-circuit our brains’ ability to process them rationally. No matter which side you happened to be on, the sentiment is the same: I’m afraid of what I might lose in terms of social status, or income, or privilege if the other side wins. The difficulty presented by overcoming those fears makes living into our Baptismal vows just that much harder. We only have to pull up our favorite news app to see reports of swastikas and “Sieg Heil!” spray painted on buildings in downtown Philadelphia, or of white students yelling racially-charged insults at their Black and Latino brothers and sisters, or of frustrated and angry protesters destroying property. NONE OF THESE THINGS IS OK, not by any stretch of the imagination. Fear is getting the upper hand where they’re happening, and if we are not careful, it will damage the delicate fabric of our society for generations to come. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our former Presiding Bishop, noted in a sermon last weekend that, “We’ve all died a little – our hope for this nation has dimmed, we’ve lost trust in our fellow citizens, we’ve raised our guard against other opinions and those people because we don’t think we can take any more… The tragedy is that the level of fear is preventing thoughtful dialogue. We pin on labels that say ‘enemy’ and think that settles the matter.”[1]

Despite this grim assessment, however, we’re not dead yet. Not by a long shot. I’ve had so many conversations to that effect in the past several days.  Their sum total reminded me of one of the early scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A mortician is wheeling his cart through town, crying out, “Bring out your dead!” A customer approaches him with an old man slung over his shoulder. He offers the mortician 9 pence to take the old man off his hands – despite the old man’s protests of, “I’m not dead!” Now, I’ve always wondered what the customer’s motivation was. Maybe the old man was a relative who’s overstayed his welcome. Maybe he was genuinely ill and the customer simply wanted to take advantage of the incredible convenience of having a mortician right outside his door. Or maybe the customer is afraid that the old man is somehow going to get in the way of his grand plans for world domination. Regardless, the customer does the only logical thing: he flings the oldster over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and takes him to the mortician… who promptly whacks the old man over the head with a club and adds him to the growing pile of bodies in his cart.  “See you on Thursday!” he says when he’s finished – as if it’s nothing but business as usual.[2]

The “business as usual” approach is part of what makes the scene so funny. However, being able to laugh about something which frightens most of us is helpful only to a point. Like its close cousins anxiety and depression, fear about what MIGHT happen has a tendency to take away our ability to envision a much more positive scenario than what either the facts or our imaginations tell us is in store. I’ve heard quite a bit of that expressed in the last five days. So many people are wondering how we can go on, when we’re afraid that some of the things we take for granted are about to be completely dismantled. On the other side of that coin, what’s become clear is, that question was already being asked, and roundly ignored, until it wound up tipping the balance of the Electoral College in an unexpected way. What I learned from it is this: if there is one place this nation can truly claim to be united, it’s in the fear and uncertainty which result from contemplating a future that, no matter which candidate received your vote, is not what we thought we were promised.

Being in this place is nothing new in the scope of human history. The ancient Israelites were right there with us after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of the people. We can hear their fear and anguish in the words of the Psalmist: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion… how shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?” (Ps 137:1, 4; BCP)

And yet, their faith in the very God who had allowed this to happen prevented them from losing hope altogether. A generation or two later, things were looking much better. The Persians had replaced the Babylonians as the dominant power in that part of the world. Jerusalem itself was still a pile of rubble, but people had begun to return home and to think about rebuilding. It’s against this backdrop that the last ten chapters of Isaiah were recorded. In them, we hear the comforting reassurance that everything will turn out in line with God’s expansive plans for the world.  In the beginning of Chapter 65, it seems God’s stance toward the people’s wrongdoing has softened a bit. Verse 8 gives the first hint of this: “Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all” (Isa 65:8, NRSV) The vision expands from there, as God promises to transform Jerusalem into a place where natural predators and prey will be found eating at the same table. It is unapologetically optimistic. Its intent is to reassure a people who have been forced to defend themselves from one threat after another that God has not, and will not, abandon them.[3]

It gets better: God’s peace in this newly created world will no longer include the need for alpha predators like lions and wolves to destroy gentler lambs and oxen.  What’s more, the serpent, whom God cursed when humanity was cast out of the Garden of Eden, will still be cursed. By providing that linkage back to a time before we were hobbled by things like fear and shame and hostility toward one another, Isaiah has made clear that the blessings God is offering can never be threatened again.[4]

This sounds an awful lot like what we’ve come to call “the American Dream,” doesn’t it? The ideal that everyone is on equal footing regardless of where we’ve come from, and the expectation that we will live long and prosper, are what form the backbone of this nation. And just as it was with our ancestors in the faith, our fears, which are at least partly grounded in the reality of the world around us, are trying once more to get the upper hand. Instead of giving in to them, let’s try something else. Let’s try holding onto the hope contained within the ideal of the peaceable kingdom which Isaiah outlines. And, let’s try putting our faith in God’s proven ability to bring this vision into existence. These two things, hope and faith, must be what guide our words and actions in the days to come. In his letter to the diocese this week, Bishop Knisely reminded us, “We must remember our baptismal covenant in which we promise to uphold the dignity of every person. We are each made in the image of God – and each one of us is infinitely precious simply by virtue of that fact. We can help others to see their neighbors as the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see one another.”[5]

Getting to a place where we’ll be able to do so will not be easy. For many right now, it is very hard to have any hope at all that things will ever get better. For others, it’s a whole new day, with entirely new opportunities to help shape this country for future generations. And still others are caught in the middle, wondering not only what will come next, but also desperately trying to be heard. Reconciling all of these things begins with listening to each other. Our response must not be one of judgment, but instead one of prayer. Once we have listened and prayed, then we will act. We have been presented with an incredible chance to show the world that the Gospel we proclaim is still relevant. We can, and we MUST, make this our primary task, because God needs us to be agents of God’s justice and love in the world, now more than ever. May God who has given us the will to do these things grant us the power to perform them.

 

 

[1] The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, “Bridging the Political Chasm.” http://www.saintjamescathedral.org/worship/sermons/2016/11/06/bridging-political-chasm. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]

[2] Monty Python and the Holy Grail, special ed. DVD. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001.

[3] Carolyn J. Sharp, “Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=678. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]

[4] Ibid.

[5] W. Nicholas Knisely, “A Divided Community: Responding with Hope and Action.” http://episcopalri.org/ForClergyCongregations/ResourceLibrary/ViewArticle/tabid/96/ArticleId/135/From-Bishop-Knisely-in-response-to-the-2016-elections.aspx. [Accessed November 12, 2016.]

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities

A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities


The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 2C (Proper 4) - May 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10
“When [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking
him to come and heal his slave.” (Luke 7:3, NRSV)
It’s a familiar story, one which is repeated in some way or another throughout the
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ early ministry. Someone from outside of Jesus’ inner circle of
hears about what he’s been up to, and asks for his help. Jesus’ fame has grown
exponentially at this early stage of his public ministry, thanks in no small part to the people
he’s fed and healed, and the sermons he’s preached. It seems like everyone wants a piece of
him. The centurion, whom we never meet face-to-face, is not all that different from anyone
else who seeks Jesus’ attention. His method is much less direct than those who threw
themselves across Jesus’ path and begged for mercy. He first sends some of the Jewish
elders with whom he’s been working, and then, when Jesus gets close to his house, he sends
some of his friends to ask for him. And all of them give the same glowing recommendations
about this centurion’s character and why he deserves Jesus’ help.
I have to admit, his indirect way of going about it reminds me a little bit of being in
middle school and how boys would try to approach girls whom they liked. (For context, this
was in the late 1980s in the South, so attempting to ask anyone of the same gender to go for
ice cream or to the school dance was an absolute no-no.) You can probably picture how it
went: the boy sends one of his friends, and/or one of her friends, to ask her, instead of
doing it himself. Maybe it’s because he’s too scared she’ll say no, or blow him off in some
way, or otherwise reject him, and to have his trusted friends deliver that blow is easier. I
don’t know. But I do remember how it happened to one of my best friends… and she said
no, to a soft-spoken boy a year older than she who was in her band class and played the
trumpet. The boy, to my knowledge, never risked talking to her again, and life went on. She
didn’t give it another thought until recently, and messaged me on Facebook with a, “hey, do
you remember that time when I told that kid I wouldn’t go with him because I didn’t know
who he was?” She’d heard through the grapevine recently that he was doing well, and was
wondering if maybe she’d missed out on a shot at being friends with a really great person
all those years ago.
Our centurion wasn’t exactly in search of a dinner date, nor are we told whether he
had the same what-if type questions after this encounter with Jesus. We don’t even know
the fate of the slave, other than that the centurion’s emissaries found him in good health
when they got back to the house afterward. However, a happy ending for the characters
themselves isn’t the point of this episode. That someone can possess – and act on – faith in
God while falling clearly outside of the socially acceptable parameters for that faith, is. This
was a huge issue in the early Church. There was a faction known as the “Judaizers” which
held that one had to be Jewish in order to have a proper faith in Christ. If one wasn’t, full
conversion, including circumcision for males, was required before one could be baptized.
There was another faction, whose leaders included Paul and likely the writer of Luke and
Acts, which said that no, God’s grace and a person’s faith in Christ were more than adequate
prerequisites for inclusion in the Church.
This passage is one of the places where the tension between the two groups shows
up – along with a challenge to push the boundaries of the community outward. For a while,
the Judaizers’ somewhat narrow point of view prevailed. It would have been a shock to
them that someone decidedly outside of the boundaries of the Jewish community could
possibly have the kind of deeply authentic faith which would lead him or her to ask Jesus
for help – and get it.
The centurion was probably what we’d call a “lifer.” A career enlisted man, his rank
in the Roman army was roughly the equivalent of a master sergeant. He commanded a
group of 80-100 other soldiers, known as a cohort, but was also accountable to those
officers higher up in the chain of command. He’s one of the good Romans, who gets along
really well with the Jewish elders. He even built a synagogue for them. His respect also
extends to observing parts of the Law. He doesn’t dare to risk inviting Jesus into his home
because of the risk of Jesus’ becoming ritually unclean. Hence the multiple emissaries and
their request that Jesus not trouble himself on the centurion’s behalf.
Yes, this centurion clearly has clues about how to work within the prevailing
cultural norms where he serves. The one thing we might find a bit offensive about him is
the fact he owns at least one slave. While our modern sensibilities might question him for
it, it would not have been unusual for a man of his standing to have at least one or two
slaves as part of his household. Most of Luke’s original readers would probably shrug it off
as a normal part of life. That is, as long as the slaves were treated well, which it seems that
this particular one is. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t wonder about the
centurion’s motives in seeking out Jesus’ assistance in healing him of his illness in the first
place. Does he only want to ensure his property will keep producing income on his behalf
for a long time? Does he regard the slave as an equal, and wants to help him out as friends
do for each other? Does he want to test Jesus on behalf of his Roman superiors? Or is it
something else?1
Regardless of his motives, it’s clear that the centurion has a great deal of respect for
Jesus. As one who is both under authority and possesses it over others, the centurion is
able to acknowledge Jesus as someone who operates under similar circumstances.2 This is
in direct contrast to the people at his home synagogue in Nazareth, who had all but run him
out of town on a rail a few chapters back when he tried to tell them who he really was. It is
also one of the first hints we receive from Luke about the universality of Jesus’ nature and
message. Faith in him, and its benefits, are not limited to a select few. He’s for everyone,
regardless of whether they have Jewish heritage or not. His willingness to engage with the
centurion serves to push the boundaries defining the community of faith outward. In giving
voice to the marginalized – in this case, the slave, and possibly the centurion as well – he
drives home the point that our connections to one another are far more important than
strictly adhering to the rules which produce sharp definitions around who’s “in” and who’s
“out.” They are the key to our shared, lived reality. We need each other, to put it simply.
And despite what our stiff-upper-lip New England culture tells us, it is not a source of
failure or shame to admit it. We require the the larger community, including the
community of faith, to speak with and for us, and to help us name what is just and hold us
accountable.3
1 Verlee A. Copeland, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost
and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 95.
2 David Lose, “Unexpected Faith.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2592.
3 M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and
Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 96.
This is exactly the point which the evil King Ahab in today’s Old Testament lesson,
and the community St. Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians, have missed. Both Jesus
and the Roman centurion understand it completely. We can’t go it alone. Nor can we simply
dismiss someone out of hand because they don’t fit within our preconceived notions of
who’s properly included. We too run the very real risk of missing out on something
fantastic, when we fail to stop and consider the unexpected possibilities when they’re
presented to us. We don’t just miss the possibility for new relationships like the one my
friend short-circuited all those year ago. We lose out on the chance for God to work in and
through us, and for lives to be changed as as a result. It’s precisely this kind of openness to
new possibilities which allows for the slave’s healing, as well as for Jesus to turn the tables
on society. His actions clearly say to them that even this slave, and his master, who is
unable to come talk to Jesus himself, are worthy of the love he is shown. “I tell you, not even
in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9, NRSV)

Peter's Buffet

The Rev. Amy Spagna Easter 5C – April 24, 2016 Acts 11:1-­‐‑18,   John 13:31-­‐‑35

 

When I was in elementary school, I was a proud card-­‐‑carrying member of the Lunchbox Crew. The privilege of buying lunch in the cafeteria, instead of bringing it from home, was a rare treat. Usually that meant my sainted mother hadn’t had time to bake bread for sandwiches. Regardless, the dollar she handed me on the way out the door on those days meant getting to savor the opportunity to stand in line with the other kids, peering over the sneeze guards to see what the cafeteria ladies were serving up. One of their more wonderful offerings was a triple-­‐‑decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the best any kid could want – the kind where the peanut butter oozes out the sides and the middle layer of bread somehow just got subsumed into what it was trying to hold together. On one non-­‐‑lunchbox day when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I had my heart set on one of those PB&J’s, so much so I could almost taste those gooey layers by the time our class’ lunchtime rolled around. So you can imagine my shock and horror when there magically appeared on my tray… a meatball sub. Meatballs?! On a hot dog bun?! What a disaster! Now, I’d been taught to accept what I was served gratefully, but by the time the line snaked its way up to the cash register, I was really distraught. How could I possibly eat such a thing as a meatball sandwich, even though I was having trouble finding the words to ask for what I really wanted?

We find Peter in more or less the same spot today. While he’s not standing in a school cafeteria line, he does have to try to make sense out of something which, at first glance, doesn’t make much sense at all. He’s had a vision, from God, in which he’s presented with a buffet of proteins to make any chef envious. However, there is nothing on that buffet which he can eat, thanks to his adherence to Jewish dietary laws. If he touches any of it, he will become ritually unclean. It’s absolutely repulsive, and unthinkable to him, until the voice from heaven tells him 3 times that he can have whatever he wants, without penalty. Once Peter snaps out of the trance which produced this vision, he’s puzzled. While he does know there’s a real-­‐‑world application for what he’s just seen, initially he is not sure what that is. His confusion is only lifted after three messengers arrive, and ask him to go and visit with the Roman centurion Cornelius. While he is a Gentile, Cornelius is, by all accounts, an, “upright and God-­‐‑fearing man, who is well-­‐‑spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts10:22, NRSV). The very next day, Peter goes with these messengers to meet with Cornelius. What he finds is exactly as the messengers describe: a Gentile who has come to believe in Christ, and whom Peter can find no reason not to baptize.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, and has to report all this to community there, the consequences are nothing less than staggering. The conservative Jewish Christians who made up most of the membership were uneasy at best when it came to interacting with Gentiles. However, Peter’s story serves to completely change their understanding of who Jesus is, including who Jesus is FOR. The vision of the buffet, along with the baptism of Cornelius, vision has hammers home the theme that Jesus is for EVERYONE, regardless of whatever heritage they may claim. Peter is among the first to recognize that it does not matter: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

It’s a devastating realization for him, and for those who were listening… because it requires changing, fundamentally, their understanding of “community” – beginning and ending with the God who was the reason for its being. The Early Church really struggled with the issue of who should be included as a “real” follower of Jesus. Fortunately for us, they were led to the conclusion that the old rules about belonging didn’t hold water any more. They’ve been superseded by Jesus’ death and resurrection – events which served to open up yet another pathway to God for anyone who came to believe in him.

This episode also serves to demonstrate how Peter, and the rest of the disciples, have taken Jesus’ final commandment to love one another to a whole new level. By hearing, and acting on, God’s direction to welcome Gentiles into their community, they’ve pushed its boundaries outward. They’ve put into practice the realization that this commandment is not intended only as the introduction to a long, final lecture given to a select group of graduate students. The Resurrection, and subsequent spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world like wildfire, have transformed into a do-­‐‑or-­‐‑die thing. Peter’s vision only reinforces the reality that there is no choice in loving one another in the same way God loves us. It is THE requirement for joining the ragtag group of disciples which had gathered to break bread with Jesus. Of course, there is one small catch. The kind of love Jesus talks about here is the kind God shows for the world, not the friendly kind of affection you and I might feel for each other. The English language does not easily distinguish between them.

However, there are two different verbs for “love” in Greek: phileo, to be fond of others as I am fond of my human friends; and agapao, to love another to the point of death, as God loves us. Jesus uses agapao appears three times in delivering this final directive. The repetition serves to hammer home that his intention – and that of his Father -­‐‑ is that his disciples love one another with the same reckless abandon as he does.  To do so does not mean entertaining a sweet, sentimental feeling. Instead, it requires taking the action of putting one’s love into a lived context.1

For Jesus, that meant allowing himself to be murdered in a very public and brutal way, and then allowing God to take care of the rest. Peter’s realization, not all that long afterward, points to how the consequences are universal, and not limited to a group of people which had come to believe in God in a particular way. God’s love is given freely, without being restricted to a specially chosen group of people, and at the expense of others. In Peter’s context, that means it applies to those who do not share his Jewish heritage. And, it’s up to him to help open the doors and welcome them into the Christian community. It’s a really audacious claim to say that God chose everyone, not just a small group. By making it, Peter runs the real risk of getting the boot from his leadership position, having people call him a heretic, or worse. Fortunately for him, his audience believes him, and is willing to act on the basis of that belief. But, it doesn’t come without a fundamental change in their understanding of God’s very nature – a change which can be very tough to process on an intellectual level. That tough processing can all but shut down the rest of the system while it’s happening. Once it’s done, however, what we’re left with is a way of being which has a tendency to make us so much more than what we are – if only we will allow God to take what we have, bless it, break and share it.

Embracing this new kind of life is inherently risky. It involves far more than just whether we get meatballs when we want a PB&J (and didn’t tell anyone about it!), or whether we can go right ahead and pick up that lobster with a side of   bacon-­‐‑wrapped

1 Karyn Wiseman, “Commentary on John 13:31-­‐‑35.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1621

scallops. We risk that our long-­‐‑held assumptions about who we are, both as a community and as individuals, might be challenged and overturned. Despite the new and improved version we get back in the process, losing a piece of our identity is no picnic. We are still challenged to engage with people who are, for all intents and purposes, outsiders of one sort or another. Just as Peter was, we are called to be very deliberate about including them. They are EVERYWHERE – most especially, they are the ones who don’t look, or talk, or act like us, or who aren’t “from here.” What we lose in daring to be in authentic relationship with them is our own fear over how the peanut butter will be chunky when we expected creamy, or the jelly will be grape when we wanted strawberry. Instead, we get so much more: the endless buffet of knowing, serving, and loving other people as God loves us.

"Cutting a Covenant"

Cutting a Covenant
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Lent 2C – February 21, 2016 Genesis 15:1 12, 17 18

Everywhere I’ve looked this week, it’s seemed like the dual currents of, “That isn’t fair!” and “I’m really anxious!” have been in the water. This nation lost a sitting Supreme Court justice, and a great deal of hand wringing and political wrangling over his replacement began only hours after the news of his death broke. Closer to home, the headlines are filled with stories detailing the ongoing arguments about how to finance badly needed repairs to Rhode Island’s bridges and roads. And on a personal note, my friend Rachel, who was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer a little less than two years ago, got yet another piece of not so good news about the progress of her treatment. There is so much about her situation which is definitely not fair. Needless to say, it’s grown into a major cause for worry for all of us who know and love her. Those of us in that circle who are people of faith have often found ourselves asking not only where God is in all this, but also how God could possibly leave us all without the abundance of long friendship that was promised when we met as college freshmen. The only consistent answer we’ve gotten has been along the lines of, “Don’t be afraid, because I’m in this with you.” At times, it’s felt like a kind of cold comfort, though in the absence of some miracle cure, it’s about all we have to go on.

We find Abram in much that same boat this morning. Having wandered far from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans on nothing more than a promise of land and descendants, he’s been left to wonder if those things will ever come to fruition in his lifetime. The blessings and the promises he’s received up to this point on his journey are all fine and good. However, they aren’t enough to make Abram feel more secure about his future and that of his family. It’s not a surprise that he’d be thinking about it, at his age. At this point in the story, he’s already 75 years old. His wife Sarai is 65. Both of them are ancient by the standards of their day, so it’s easy to imagine they are thinking about it, hard.

It’s not that their travels have left them with nothing. They have substantial wealth in the form of their herds, as well as the belongings and human resources they’ve brought with them. By the standards of their day, they are fairly well off. And yet, they are still missing something. Abram’s chief complaint is that all this wandering through the desert has left him without the one thing he really wanted, and that was a blood heir. That he’s without one is not ideal, though is not the end of the world. He does have a contingency plan in the person of Eliezer of Damascus, who is a slave in Abram’s household. However, that he’s had to make this plan really bothers him. He’s not afraid to let God know it, either. In a very short span, he says twice, “You have given me no offspring!”

With this statement, it’s almost as if Abram is accusing God of failing to live up to God’s end of the bargain. I imagine the lead up to the conversation we just overheard between the two of them might have gone something like this: “Hi, God. It’s Abram – you know, the guy you asked to leave the security of his home a few years ago. What exactly are you doing here? I’ve walked thousands of miles and narrowly avoided getting into serious

trouble a few times to boot, all because you promised me land and children. I’m kind of tired, and could really use a break – or at least, some sign that you’re still out there and are going to hold up your end of this bargain.”

And so God appears to Abram in a vision, where we get the meat of Abram’s complaint. It’s a very serious thing to try to charge God with not keeping God’s end of the bargain – which is the heart of what Abram is trying to say. His words stem from something common to the human condition, and that’s fear. I don’t mean the kind of fear which leads us to run away from an animal with large claws and big, sharp, pointy teeth. The kind of fear Abram expresses here is the existential sort which makes us wonder what we have to show for everything we’ve done, and if any of it mattered at all. His question is that of a man who is wondering what his reward is for being faithful to this God who’s pulled him out of his home and asked him to wander thousands of miles “to a land I will show you.” If he’s going to feel better, Abram HAS to know how God can be trusted, particularly when God’s sense of timing in fulfilling a promise isn’t in sync with Abram’s sense of what’s proper.1 I’m also told that Abram’s response to God’s initial appearance in his dream can be paraphrased as, “Really?” complete with all the curiosity and frustration it implies. God has yet to make real the promise of descendants, so maybe Abram’s real question is, “What will you give me? Is my reward to be something other than children?”2

God’s response? Don’t worry! “You won’t be able to count how many children you will have!”

And Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, NRSV)

This tells us as much about God’s character as it does Abram’s, and that’s how both of them are pretty darned good at keeping promises. The Hebrew in this verse is ambiguous at best, which leaves open the distinct possibility that the description of “righteous” could apply to both of them. One way to read it is as we just heard: Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness. In other words, Abram trusted God’s promise. In return, God indicated that the patriarch had fulfilled the obligations of his relationship by such trust. But this sentence might also be understood like this: “Abram believed the Lord; aye, Abram reckoned that God’s doubling down on the promise was God living up to the obligations of his relationship.”3

Living up to those obligations is what “righteousness” is about. God knows this, so to show how serious God is about it, God does what is called “cutting a covenant. “Abram cuts a bunch of animals in half, and then God, in the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, passes between the pieces. It seems like an odd practice to us now, though it was not

1 Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 6.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730. 2 Ibid.
3 Ralph Klein, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 12, 17 18” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1599.

all that unusual in the cultures of the part of the world where Abram was traveling. It was commonly used to seal agreements between two vastly unequal parties – for example, God and Abram – with the understanding that breaking that agreement would result in the offending party’s being cut in half and then burned like the animal carcasses. God’s being the one to pass between the pieces places God in the position of suffering the consequences, instead of Abram. It marks God as a righteous God who keeps promises. And as we know, God did finally deliver the goods to Abram, in the form of Isaac and all those who came after him. For his part, Abram was no less worthy. He passed every test God threw at him with flying colors, living to the age of 175 and dying, “an old man and full of years” (Genesis 25:8, NRSV).

At the very heart of the interaction between Abram and God are two big things: faith, and trust. If Abram can see and understand that righteousness is THE hallmark of God’s character, and that as a result God will make good on God’s promises, then Abram can believe and trust that things will come out as God says, and in God’s good time.4 And so too can we put our faith and trust in God’s ability to show up in our lives, whether asked to or not, instead of doubting whether we’ll get what was promised. In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier summed it up this way: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.”5

The ability to be open to the new and unimagined possibility does not automatically take away our anxiety or fear. We have to work at it. As people who claim to have faith in, and be imitators of, Jesus Christ, it means cultivating trust, not only in each other, but especially in this God who has an uncanny knack for being present when it is the absolutely last thing we expect. For my friend Rachel, it probably won’t cure her cancer. What it has done instead is helped those she’s invited to walk with her to learn how we can best be there with her and with each other. It starts with simply showing up and listening, instead of speaking all the unhelpful platitudes our own anxiety about losing her pushes to the surface. It’s even made us stop to count the number of stars in the sky along the way. That infinity is what we’re promised – and it goes well beyond what we have in front of us right now.

4 Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 6.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730.
5 Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2006), 47.

Mapping Your Journey Through Lent.

      

      Today is the first Sunday of Lent and through this season we understand that we are a people invited to holy journey.  A that began on Ash Wednesday when we received a mark of ashes on our foreheads.  On our journey together in Lent we are reminded that we are a people struggling- with our mortality, our frailties – our temptations, fears and insecurities- and yes with our sins- and as we journey together we become a people of God. 

            But there are some practical questions which may pop into our mind.  Questions that all of us ask when we are on a trip.  Where are we going?  How do we know we when we get there? And for our holy journey some of us may ask what makes our journey different from the rest of the world which also travels.  And some of us can be like impatient kids in the back seat who ask “Are we there yet?”  And with these questions-- scripture can help us.   

            Through our scripture and through the lectionary readings in Lent and we understand that the story of God’s people is a story of a people who are always on a journey.  Adam and Eve moving out of the Garden of Eden into the Wilderness, or Noah traveling through the uncharted oceans to find land or Abraham and Sarah traveling from Ancient Iraq to the land of Caanan.   Jacob- traveling alone away from his home and then coming back home with his family.   There are times the story involves God’s people traveling to places like Egypt to survive and at other times they journey to escape slavery and captivity as they did in Egypt and Babylon.

 

The consistent theme is that the people of God are always traveling- where are they going? – most times to the  “promised land” a land which means for them- a place of peace, security, hope- a place they could call home. But the truly ironic thing is that the promised land may not be physical destination it may be something altogether different –because-- in the places they end up – all ways fall short of expectations.  For there is always trouble brewing in Eden and outside of Eden.

Notice even in the Gospel, the moment Jesus is Baptized, the moment he acknowledges his understanding of his vocation as “Beloved Son of God”- he is driven into the wilderness, he begins a journey that tests his call.  But also notice that as he traveled, his sence of security, hope and peace was not some place- Jesus seemed always seemed to be at “home” where ever he went. Maybe because he understood that he was never alone- God was always with him.  This is a piece of wisdom  that each generation of faithful Israelite eventually learn.  It is a lesson that we may learn as we journey with God- if we go with God we are always in the promised land.  This makes our journey uniquely holy!

   

   Today in our liturgy- we began by praying the Great Litany. Traditionally, Anglican Churches engage in this liturgy on the first, second, third and fifth Sundays of Lent, although many churches pray this litany on the first Sunday of Lent as we do today. For us, it marks the beginning of the journey of Lent.  You might have some questions about this litany. 

 

First off what is a litany – it is a series of petitions that are said in a responsive fashion between a leader and an entire congregation.  In the Great Litany, nearly every area of prayer is addressed.. including prayer for the church, the world, the government, and the poor. These petitions are prefaced by a series of requests asking God to deliver us from all manner of afflictions: evil, sin, heresy, schism, natural disasters, political disasters, violence, death, and the list goes on.

 

For those of us who are new to the Episcopal Church the Great Litany might seem a bit peculiar or awkward.   It might seem like we are doing some sort of  liturgical aerobics, yes--it is not a something that is done in other religious traditions. Because really-- what church ever begins a service with ten to twelve minutes of a cappella chanting of prayers while a congregation repeats a refrain the entire time. The chanting is done all while the choir, clergy and lay ministers process into the sanctuary and continue to process around the sanctuary until the entire litany is over.

 

But this litany roots us- to an ancient tradition.  The Great Litany is the first piece of liturgy that ever existed in the English language. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, compiled this litany from Catholic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox sources at the request of King Henry the Eight in the 16th century .  Prior to this point all church services were in Latin. King Henry VIII commissioned this Litany because at the time it was the practice for litanies to be offered in procession through public neighborhoods.  And the King was disappointed that people were not responding and joining in the prayers. He observed that this was because the people “understode no parte of suche prayers or suffrages as were used to be songe and sayde.”

 

It remains to today almost entirely the same, sung to the same chants Cranmer originally assigned.

 

Through this procession of community- in prayer we acknowledge several realities.  First we understand – that prayer is central to our life together and mission in the world.  The Great Litany helps us to see that we need God’s intervention and involvement in all areas of our lives.  It also reminds us that we are on a journey with God and with each other. And it is in the midst of this journey that we let go of our illusion of  control, and empty ourselves to God.  And finally, we understand that regardless of where we are, when we are with God--- we are at home. It may be cliché sounding --but friends wisdom tells us the –the destination is never as important as the journey and who we travel with.   

 

What a wonderful way to begin Lent.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

Water to wine- the act that welcomes all

There is the story of Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show speaking to an eight year old boy. The young man had rescued two friends in a coal mine in West Virginia. As Johnny spoke with the boy, it was clear that boy was a Christian. So Carson asked, if he attended Sunday school. When the boy said yes.  He asked "What are you learning in Sunday school?" "Last week," came his reply, "our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine." The audience roared with laughter but Carson tried to keep a straight face. Then he said, "And what did you learn from that story?" The boy shifted a bit- it was clear that he hadn't thought about this. But then his face lite up and he replied, "If you're going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!"

 

To the modern hearer, it might be a bit puzzling to hear that Jesus’ first public act in John’s Gospel Is turning water into win-now I know you might say—hey by Episcopal standards that this is an exceptional miracle.  But really water into wine?- In the Gospel of Mark--Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism, in Matthew it is the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke it is a sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth on the sabbath.

 

So what is John's is trying to tell us about Jesus and his ministry in this first story?

Let’s look and see: 

Jesus’s family is invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee and he and his disciples tag along.  As we look into this story we see a little bit of comedic tension between a mother and her son. Reminding us though Jesus is God, he is still a son.  Mary is a demanding mother has faith in the abilities of her son.  So much so she goads Jesus to take care of a problem.  A problem that would have been a shameful experience for the family of the bridegroom.      

 

So what does Jesus do—he directs that six stone water jars which were to be used “for the Jewish rites of purification” to be filled with water.  The water in those jars would have been used for making people ritually clean to participate in the community celebration.  This is important because in the Gospel of John, there is a running debate between Jesus and the religious authority.  Where as the Authorities adopt of posture of following the rules that allowed some to be in and others to be out.  Jesus offers a grace that welcomes all.  By changing this water into wine, Jesus makes a symbolic statement that foretells Jesus’s ministry. Because really Jesus could have gotten water from any where else to may wine from but he chose the Jars of purification and repurposed them for grace.   The jars could not be used for ritual purification any longer.  In other words no would have to jump through hoops to be made clean or worthy to join the party. 

 

John calls this miracle the first of many signsthat reveals the glory of God in Jesus.   In the Gospel there are  6 other signs that reveal who Jesus is.  The signs could be miracles but they didn’t have to be.   For John the signs confirmed belief, encouraged faith, transformed individuals.  For John it is not the miracle that was important- for you see once the wine is gone- it doesn’t really matter how good it tasted but what is significant is that the sign helped the people to discern that there is something special going on- God is doing something and especially with Jesus.   The sign of the changing of water into wine at Cana- lead those disciples who on the fence about Jesus to be confirmed in their faith!  It lead them to a deeper commitment to God through Jesus. 

 

For you see in the Gospel of John,  those who could recognize the signs were people who could spiritually see and understand the power of God as opposed to those whocould not see the signs and who were spiritually lost. 

 

Signs are important for us in our world as well .  We see a stop sign and we do what? We stop of course!   We see the flashing lights of a police car we immediately recognize the sign and slow down or pull over- and pray we don’t get a ticket. 

 

In church there are signs that are brimming with great symbolism, Baptism is one:  when a child- or an adult and the baptized it is a powerful sign, we call it a sacrament an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The sign tells us something about holiness of the act and the holiness of the promise being made.   

 

Sometimes there are signs that are not so positive, this past week in the news we encountered a sign in our Anglican Church.  A sign that revealed a deep division within our Anglican church,  as we wrestle with hard issues of who is welcomed and included by God in our church.  I am speaking of course of the recent sanctioning of the Episcopal Church by Anglican Primates.

 

The sanction recommends that, the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent the Anglican Church on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, and should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committeeand they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

 

The sanctions were imposed in response to our churches decision at General Convention last June to change canonical language that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman (Resolution A036) and authorize two new marriage rites with language allowing them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples (Resolution A054).

 

But even though there is a call for sanctions the Primates called for an unanimous desire to walk together in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. 

 

What we might understand from this sign is that there is still a lot of work to do to reconcile differing perspectives in our Anglican Church. 

 

But in the midst of the great work that has to be done.  Our presiding Bishop Michael Curry and our Diocesan Bishop Nick reminds us, that Jesus calls us to be House of prayer welcoming all people.  We are church firmly and courageously hold to the understanding that whether you are gay or straight, black, white, latino, Asian, young or old, conservative or liberal the Episcopal Church is your church!  And that our church is part of movement that began with the first miracle in Cana of Galilee. A Jesus movement- a movement of justice, it is a movement that acknowledges that God loves us- all of us. 

 

I am proud our church, I have faith in our church – because it is a church that welcomes all with the grace of God!

 

Because friends Jesus has been invited to our party- and his isour community.  And by God’s grace we will by the g walk and pray with those who do not share our point of view.  And by our walk we will  fulfill our vocation to welcome all to Jesus.  And we will be a community that isvisible sign of God’s inward Grace! So that all may learn and believe!

 

Amen!

God Stakes A Claim

 

God Stakes A Claim
The Rev. Amy Spagna
January 10, 2015 – The Baptism of Our Lord Isaiah 43:1 7; Luke 3:15 17, 21 22

Has anyone told you they loved you today?

I bet God has. If you listen closely enough, it’s not all that hard to hear it.

That we are on the receiving end of the most powerful force in the universe is PRECISELY what our words and actions today are meant to demonstrate. That force has called us by name, paid an enormous price to save us, and will continue to hold us as a thing more precious than the riches of Egypt, Ethopia, and Seba combined. This statement is old news. Not only did the exiled people of Jerusalem hear it through the words of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus himself heard them as well, as he sat on the banks of the Jordan after his own baptism. We will be continuing the long standing tradition repeating them in just a few minutes, and again at the 11:00 service, when we welcome four little children into the Body of Christ. In doing so, we will formally recognize the claim that God has already staked on their young lives.

No matter where, or how, we hear it, the phrase, “You are my beloved Son,” is a powerful one. When God speaks it, things are changed forever. Created order arises from chaos. Abraham leaves his home and goes to the land which God would show him. The Red Sea is parted for just long enough to allow Moses to lead the people to safety. I could go on, and on, and on, but you see the point: that God loves the world seems to have a way of changing the course of human history. That claim means we are valued, so much so that entire nations were the price of our ransom, and we are loved beyond the point of human understanding. Our belonging to God is the one thing which cannot fail us, even when it seems as if our lives have careened out of control.1 Although we we are told this from the time we can understand spoken language, it bears repeating: you belong to God, and you are beloved.

We receive the first hint of this message from the prophet Isaiah. This particular section of the book, often called “Second Isaiah,” is thought to have appeared toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. At that time, it seemed an end to this episode of suffering might be near. Some of the people had been allowed to return to Jerusalem to re establish a the worshipping community in the Temple. It gave the people reason to have hope again – hope that God had not totally abandoned them after all. This is a marked shift in tone from the previous chapter, which ends with a lengthy description of how God punished Israel for its sins. The people simply refused to listen; and so, Isaiah tells us, “[God] poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of his war; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him, but he did not take it to heart” (Isaiah 42:25, NRSV).

1 David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624.

But. That was yesterday. Today, God speaks a new word: Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. Just as it was with prior punishment, God is the only explanation for the sudden change in the people’s fortunes. This new word announces an end to judgment and proclaims the promise of life from captivity and death.2 This is NOT the language, or the work, of a distant God who could care less about the people S/He created! A distant God would not go to such great lengths to save the beloved people. Nor would She promise to be present in the midst of life’s trials. And a distant God would most certainly not willingly choose to become incarnate as a part of the world God created.

Isaiah’s announcement that God has paid Israel’s ransom takes on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus.3 This time, we meet him as a young man who has joined the crowd listening to his cousin John the Baptist. No matter which of the gospel accounts you happen to be reading, they all end with the affirmation of Jesus’ special status. Something which looks like a dove appears over his head, and a voice from heaven announces that, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” While John relies on John the Baptist to relay this information after the fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the scene as it happened. Many people had gathered along the banks of the Jordan River to hear John’s sermon and to receive his baptism with water. This baptism was meant to do two things. One, it was an act of repentance and cleansing. Two, it was a key part of preparing for the One who would come to baptize the people with fire and the Holy Spirit. John is one of the few people who already knows Jesus’ true identity. So when Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him, John is more than a little surprised. John isn’t entirely sure about it, though does it anyway. And as Jesus comes up out of the water, that voice from heaven rings out for all who would hear it.

What sets Luke’s version apart from the others is that it raises the issue of who applied the water. Matthew and Mark both are clear that John does it. The two verses from Luke which the editors of the lectionary chose to omit tell us that John has already been thrown into jail for speaking out against King Herod. Yet, his ministry is continued by SOMEONE, at least long enough to allow Jesus and some other, unnamed people, to be baptized. By failing to name a human agent here, Luke reinforces the idea that baptism – and most especially this baptism – is God’s work. What’s active here is the Holy Spirit – the very same one which baptizes us. Because of this, we can have confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing we do can remove the mark identifying us as God’s beloved. What’s more, our relationship with God is the only one we can’t completely screw up. Sure, we can try to run away and hide from it. We can even neglect or outright ignore it, but the one thing we can’t do is to destroy it completely.4 God loves us too much to ever let us go. If you need proof, you don’t have to look any further than the words of Isaiah. Yes,

2 Anathea Portier Young, “Commentary on Isaiah 43:1 7.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494.
3 Howard Wallace, “Year C, Baptism of Jesus: January 13, 2013. Isaiah 43:1 7.” http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/web/OTComments/EpiphanyC/BaptismJesus.html. 4 David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.”

God got angry and punished the people. In the end, however, it was God who deliberately chose to ransom them and bring them home.

God loves us. So what? What are we supposed to DO about that, and how are we supposed to live with that? Fortunately, there are plenty of road maps to choose from. They include the one titled “The Baptismal Covenant,” which is found on page 304 of the Prayer Book. There, we are given five basic tasks: one, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; two, to persevere against evil and return to the Lord when we need help with it; three, to preach the Gospel by word and example; four, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and five, to seek justice and peace, while respecting the dignity of every human being. It’s a tall order. Nor is any of these things particularly easy all of the time. Fortunately, we do not have to attempt them alone. Nor are we expected to. Baptism, like Eucharist, and all the other sacramental rites of the church, are fundamentally an action of the whole community. Clergy and people together are needed to make these promises come to life. When that happens, we are told, Christ will be in the midst of us –and we will see for ourselves what Isaiah meant when he quoted God as saying we are precious and honored in God’s sight.

If there is any nugget of wisdom I would give to Adeline, Kylie, Madison and Kennedy on the occasion of their baptism, this is it: we are precious and honored in God’s sight. There are no exceptions or conditions attached which can change that. What we do here today, through our prayers, a splash of water, and anointing with fragrant oil, is to begin whispering that awesome truth to them. The message that truth conveys also bears repeating for all of us who are promising to uphold them in their new life in Christ. When all else fails – when the world, or the people around us, let us down – that God loves us is what we can fall back on. With that, the legendary question bears repeating: has anyone told you that they loved you today?

"An Ordinary Christmas"

 

The Rev. Sunil Chandy

Rector

Christ Church Westerly, RI

 

Merry Christmas

 

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and for many of us, we are familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. 

 

It begins, with shepherds watching their sheep. There are angels, prophesies, and of course Empires and Kings that provide-the backstory. In fact folks, the very cosmos is involved, as the God is ever present in the story. 

 

The Gospel of Luke describes powerful forces at work because the birth story of Jesus begins a new phase in the struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. 

Between a hopeful vision for the world- a vision filled with justice, peace and goodwill as opposed to a world filled with greed, violence and hate. 

 

But in the midst of this epic struggle, Luke does something extraordinary- he focuses his attention on ordinary folk- like you and me, he moves our gaze to simple shepherds, an ordinary carpenter, a teenage mother, and a new born infant. We watch as they respond in faith to the fulfillment of God’s promise.    

 

And this is not just in this birth story, in the scriptures that follow,  Luke, focuses on Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist, Peter, James and John and countless other ordinary folk as he advances the movement of that Epic Universal Struggle- a struggle that is won finally for Good in sacrifice of that same child who would grow to be know as Jesus.  A man who tells us that God’s Vision of a Just Good World is a reality for us- if we act with faith and compassion!  He reminds us of this even at his death on the cross that for every act of violence and hate-- if we respond in faith and love--the forces of Good will win over the forces of evil!

 

Why does Luke do this? And Why is this important to us?   

 

Because in Luke’s story the ordinary people are forerunners ... of future believers.  And he Luke invites, to relate to the them.  To see ourselves in them.  To understand that we can be like them, the shepherds-- are who are waiting for purpose, waiting for something meaningful to be apart of and to be joyful about.  Or we are like Mary and Joseph  caught up in a violent, and busy world, and  filled with pressures and forces we can’t control.  For you see their world is not unlike our own, filled with fear, terrorism poverty and a host of other problems.  But Luke reminds us that it is to this broken world that God chooses to establish a new way. 

 

And this new way it must be chosen by of these simple folk.

 

In response to the visit of the Angles the shepherds move from terror to rejoicing. Joseph and Mary moves from anxiety and worry to reflection and recommitment to God. 

And our response to the Good news is a choice as well that will help the vision of God to be a reality.

 

Because friends Choices matter, because what we choose to believe about ourselves and our world defines how we live in it.
 
I would like to offer you a gift today.  It is a story that I heard over 15 years ago and it changed the way I see myself in the world.  Its about a boy named Teddy.

 

He was one of those kids! Disinterested in school; wrinkled clothes; uncombed hair; you know the type--a deadpan face; unfocused stare. Miss Thompson his teacher, just couldn’t relate to Teddy. He always answered in monosyllables. He was unattractive, unmotivated. He was just plain hard to like.

 

You know how parents say they love they love their kids all the same. You know that’s not true, sometimes you love some better than others. Well for teachers I think it’s the same thing!  Miss Thompson said she loved the all the class the same way but deep down this wasn’t completely truth. Whenever she marked Teddy’s work, she got a bit of pleasure Xs next to the wrong answers, and when she put the Fs at the top of the papers, she did it with a flair.


She knew better; she had his records and knew his history.

 

1st Grade: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation.

2nd Grade: Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home.

3rd Grade: Teddy is a good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.

4th Grade: Teddy is very slow, but well behaved. His father shows no interest.

 

Well Christmas came and the kids in Miss Thompson’s class brought her presents. Among the presents was one from Teddy. She was surprised.

 

Teddy’s gift was wrapped in ugly brown paper and held together with Scotch tape. On the paper were written the simple words, "For Miss Thompson from Teddy." When she opened Teddy’s present, there was a half bottle of perfume (not the really expensive type) and also out from the bag fell a gaudy rhinestone. The other kids started to laugh, but Miss Thompson had enough compassion to silenced them by immediately putting some of the perfume on her wrist and then holding her wrist up for the kids to smell, she said "Doesn’t it smell lovely?" And the children agreed with "oohs" and "aahs."

 

At the end of the day, when school. Teddy stayed behind. He came over to her desk and said softly, "Miss Thompson...Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother...and her bracelet looks real pretty on you. I’m glad you liked your presents." When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her, for her cynicism and lack of compassion.

 

The next day when the children came to school, they were welcomed a new Miss Thompson.  She chose to became a different person, no longer just a teacher going through the motions; she had become an agent of God. A person committed to loving her children and doing things for them that would live on after her. She helped all the children, but especially the slow ones, ones like Teddy Stallard. By the end of that school year, Teddy showed amazing progress! He had caught up with most of the students and then She didn’t hear from him for a long time. One day, she received a note that read:

 

Dear Miss Thompson:

I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class.

Love, Teddy Stallard

 

Four years later, another note came:

Dear Miss Thompson:

They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The university has not been easy, but I like it.

Love, Teddy Stallard

 

And four years later:

Dear Miss Thompson:

As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were still alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.

Love, Teddy Stallard

 

Miss Thompson went to that wedding and sat where Teddy’s mother would have sat. She deserved to sit there because her faith and Godly response helped to change a young man’s life, a life that would touch the lives of others!

 

Yes my friends Luke is right- it is the faithful, courageouschoices of ordinary people like you and me who will build the kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish! 

 

So Friends, this Christmas, for this year- for every act of violence or meaness that you experience or see find a way to respond to the world in love!  For every fearful or angry moment you may have choose to respond in faith and compassion! For this is the model of the savior child born in bethlahemand it model for establishing God’s dream of a Kingdom of Peace.

 

Amen

 

 

Advent IV "The Faith Of Mary"

The Magnificat:  The Power of Mary’s Choice

By the Rev. Sunil Chandy

Christ Church

Westerly, RI

 

 

Today in the Gospel of Luke we hear the story of Mary the  mother of Jesus meeting her cousin Elizabeth.  She sings one the most beloved hymns in Christendom, “the Magnificat.”  What Advent Season would be complete with out the Magnificat?  Lets look at this ancient Christian hymn or canticle and understand the powerful effect of the choices of Mary and how these choices affects us today.   

 

The Magnificat , also known as the Song of Mary,  comes from the first word of the Latin version of the canticle's text – Magnificat anima mea, Dominum --(My soul doth magnify the Lord).

 

In our Anglican tradition this canticle is usually sung or recited during the main evening prayer service, Evensong—And occasionally at Holy Eucharist as it was today- sung by our choir so beautifully!

 

In the first part of the hymn, Mary the future mother of Jesus -declares her gratefulness to God for choosing her to be the mother of the savior. 

 

The 2nd half of the song expresses the thanksgiving of the nation. God is the powerful one who has destroyed the enemies, scattered the proud, and reduced the rich. The lowly he has exalted, and she declares that he will remember his promises to Israel.

 

The Magnificat stands as a powerful testament of the faith.

Mary’s faith is deep but we need to look closer in the Gospel of Luke to understand how deep it is. 

 

Luke’s Gospel decribes the meeting of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.  Earlier in the Gospel we learn that Elizabeth much older than Mary- and well past child bearing age. Yet as Mary meets Elizabeth we understand that her condition is also the result of a miraculous pregnancy.  Her child would one day grow to become John the Baptist.

 

And as the two cousins meet,  Luke describes that Elizabeth’s unborn child moves within her womb. Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary’s response is the Magnificat

 

I love this wonderful picture that Luke paints for us…but this beautiful Christmas card word image may masks the danger and uncertainty that Mary must have been feeling. 

 

Yes there was danger for Mary.  She is a teenager and unmarried in the small community of Nazareth- and unlike our own, in her community, women were stoned for committing adultery.  In Mary’s birth community one’s behaviors directly impacted the status and perception of the family.  There were enormous pressures to make sure that unwanted behaviors and mistakes don’t occur.  And though Scripture and the church believes that the pregnancy was the result of God’s miraculous intervention, the people of Mary’s community would not know.  So the teen would be hard pressed to explain her situation. 

 

So she was in danger.  This might explain why she leaves her community of Nazareth and travels over 80 miles to see her cousin in Judah.  I can only image the worry and anxiety she must have been going through.  Questioning herself and wondering what to do?  It is in the midst of her worry that she reaffirms her course of action. She will believe in God and She will have the baby and will raise it faithfully! 

 

And as she meets Elizabeth - who is also in midst own unexpected pregnancy.  She is greeted with affirmation, welcome and love.   These two women live in the midst of life that is filled with harsh realities and yet they dare to believe… and have hope---in a God who can do marvelous things even when circumstances suggest otherwise. 

 

This hope that she passes on to her unborn child. 

Imagine Mary singing this lovely Magnificat canticle as a lullaby to her child!  Imagine how that lullaby, and the choice of Mary to have a hopeful and faithful attitude might influence and nurture the faith life of that child.  And imagine it is God that uses that child borne of unexpected and inconvenient circumstances to change the way we see God and the world. 

 

Yes the story of the young Mary is a powerful one for us as well to struggle with our own lives, and sometimes our lives are filled with harsh realities, and it may seem easier for us to lose faith. It might seem easy for us to see only the problems of life, it would be easy for us to loose sight of our faith.

 

This is why Mary and her choice is powerful!  The simple and wonderful faith of that teenage girl shows us that we too can have faith in a God!  And as we have faith, we too can give birth to the Kingdom of God in our lives and in the world! 

Amen

"Of Scribes & Widows" Mother Amy Spagna Nov 8th


The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 24B (Proper 27)
November 8, 2015 Mark 12:38-44

Would this not have made a fantastic Gospel reading for the stewardship campaign? Seriously! One could not ask for a more wonderful scene than this to undergird the idea that all of us have something to contribute, no matter how small. The Temple treasury is having a red-letter day. Rich and poor alike are walking up to the donation box in to put in their contributions. However, all is not as rosy as it seems. Mark makes clear that this crowd contains a lot of wealthy people, and they are putting a lot of money into the collection box. They may even be making a show out of it, so they can’t help but be noticed by anyone who might be watching. Jesus, who’s standing off to the side somewhere and watching all this, looks right past them, and notices someone else sticking out from the crowd like a sore thumb: a poor widow, who has come by herself and put into the box the very last of her material resources. She, and her motivations, could not be any more different from the rest of the people there. Jesus hammers that difference home by pointing her out to the disciples as the one who has truly given the most. (How lovely.)

However, there is a great deal more going on here than just a story about someone who gives up everything she has for the good of the community, and with the undertone of, “That’s what WE should be like, too.This is NOT a story about how the most vulnerable are yet again asked to give up the most, or even about offering something as an act of devotion to God.1 Instead, it’s sandwiched among Jesus’ harshest criticisms of the religious establishment of his day an establishment which seems to have gotten so full of itself that it ignores its own basic rules for how people are to interact with God and with one another. That criticism is meant to point out how backward the world was - and still is! - compared with how it OUGHT to be. We OUGHT to be able to see, and to treat with care and respect, even the most invisible people in the world... and yet, we still have trouble doing so. We tend to get so caught up with our own stuff, our own status, our own whatever it is that we can’t see any farther than the boundaries which our stuff has made for us.

For better or for worse, this kind of short-sightedness is the human way. Not much has changed in that regard in the past 2000 years, which is why this part of Mark is still relevant for us now. Jesus draws our attention to it through his harsh criticism of those in positions of privilege within the religious establishment. He follows that up by going out of his way to point out one individual who embodies everything “the establishment” is not. This one poor widow is a symbol of Jesus’ – and God’s - upside-down way of putting people first who would otherwise remain invisible. That Jesus notices her, one of the invisible people of her day, at all is remarkable, perhaps even more so than what she has done. By putting her last two cents into the donation box, she’s given up everything she has to support an institution which, despite the best intentions of its founders, has grown corrupt.

1 Emilie Townes, “Theological Perspective: Mark 12:38-44.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 286.

In the process, its leaders have also lost the ability to look beyond their own self-interests toward those of the wider community including widows, orphans, and anyone else lacking a male blood relative to provide for them.

Standing in direct contrast to this widow we have a group of scribes, who only seem to be in it to be seen wearing their long robes and to get the best seats at dinner. In other words, it’s become all about them, and maintaining their privileged positions, and not about what they have to serve others like the poor widow. Whatever word we might want to use to describe them, whether it’s narcissistic, self-centered, self-serving, stuck up, or just plain ignorant, these scribes are decidedly not ideal role models. Instead, they’ve become hypocrites, leaders whose failure to put their money where their mouths are opens them up to the harshest criticism Jesus has to offer. Because they are so well-educated, they of all people ought to know what the Law requires of them. Yet, they still choose to act in ways intended to draw attention in the public arena, instead of using their knowledge and power to set a positive example for the people watching them. What’s worse, they’re greedy for power in the religious arena. When it’s given to them, they turn around and use that power and status to, “devour widows’ houses” instead of obeying the mandates in the Torah to ensure those widows are provided for.2

In pointing out the scribes’ bad habits at the end of a chapter where he’s spent quite a lot of time arguing with them already, Jesus turns things upside down yet again. As a symbol of the “down and out,” it’s the widow who demands our attention, and not the scribes in all their self-important and swishy robes. The Old Testament is very clear on this count. The law codes lump together widows, orphans, and strangers into a category as people who must not be abused, lest God’s wrath be kindled against the abusers (Exodus 22:21-24, NRSV). Psalm 94 goes a step further in describing those who do so as “evildoers.” The prophet Isaiah even gets in on the action:

“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!

What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,

so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?

For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.” (Isaiah 10:1-4, NRSV)

2 Robert A. Brant, “Exegetical Perspective: Mark 12:38-44.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 286.

Again, the scribes of all people SHOULD know this better than most. Yet, they’ve chosen not to act like it. No matter what excuses they might have given for their behavior, it raises the question of what has gotten in their way: is it the seductive trap of being liked and respected both inside and outside of their “usual” circles, and the material rewards that respect commands, or is it something else?

Since they’re human, the answer to that is probably, “all of the above.” I would bet we all know someone like that and have acted that way ourselves from time to time. Fortunately for us, we are blessed with a whole community of people here to tell us when we’ve gotten to that point. Hopefully those people will also help us begin to make the changes we need to make so we can pull our heads and our hands out from underneath our robes. Unfortunately for the scribes, they don’t seem to have that kind of support as readily available as we do. Jesus tries to get them to stop and look in the mirror, seemingly to no avail. At least, Mark never tells if he succeeded at that task or not. Regardless, Mark’s – and Jesus’ – point is that to see the upside down way of things in God’s Kingdom is what matters. Period. Instead of desperately trying to get others to complement us on our finery, we should be paying attention to the widows, orphans, and strangers all the people we might not even notice otherwise. THAT is how to turn things upside down by the world’s reckoning. The great thing is, that’s right side up when it comes to God’s way of doing things. Michael Curry, the new Presiding Bishop, in the sermon preached at his installation last Sunday, puts it this way: “Yes, the way of God’s love turns our world upside down. But that’s really right side up. And in that way, the nightmare of this world will be transfigured into the very dream of God for humanity and all creation. My brothers and sisters, God has not given up on God’s world. And God is not finished with The Episcopal Church yet. God has work for us to do. Jesus has work for us to do and it’s the Jesus Movement. So don’t worry. Be happy!”3

My friends, we’ve been given a job to do, and that’s to go out and serve the people in our town who most need what we have to offer. Everyone’s got something to contribute. Whether it’s material resources, time, or the embarrassing wealth of talent I see sitting in front of me this morning, we need it all. Our very survival depends on taking it and dropping it into God’s collection box. And just as we will do later in the service with the offering of bread and wine in the Eucharist, we will give thanks, ask God to bless it, and marvel in what God will do with it.

3 “A Sermon Preached by the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry: The Installation of the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church.” Delivered at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, Washington, D.C. November 1, 2015. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/11/01/video-currys-sermon-at- installation-of-the-27th-presiding-bishop/.